After Break

Lillian Bassman

       There is an 11:30 scream. But first, the morning.

       Slip into work 15, 20 minutes late, clutching the stolen-back minutes in a fist. Pause for a moment at the front of the office, before the vast hush of cubicles. Weave slowly through, giving each one a chance to display its uniqueness: funny sayings, greeting cards, photos of children and grandchildren, all smiling because they don't work here.

       Once seated, pick up all the work in the Inbox. Place it in the Outbox. The cubicle around the desk is the only thing visible. A forest with thumbtacks. If a person fell in their cubicle and no one heard them, would they make a sound? What if they screamed, "Scrotum!" "Apothecary!" The phone rings. Say, "Good morning." Wait, first pick up the receiver.

       A friend will come by for gossip. Work appears, expecting to be done. Another friend will come by to gossip about the first. By 10:30, the countdown begins. The clock on the computer is seven minutes faster than the one on the wall. Watch the wall, don't be a cheater.

       11AM. 10 minute break. Outside, there is life. Too bad it's this one. The city streets tremble with suits and shoppers. Too many eyes passing by, passing into someone trying to smoke, trying to be for one lousy minute alone. Impossible to stare off into space when there is no space, just heads and buses and granite where air should be.

       After break, the bathroom. By the sinks, women talk at each other's reflections as they fuss with their own.

       "Copy machine's busted again."

       "If he says 'Good Morning' to my chest one more time."

       "Got any hair spray?"

       Oblivious to the clenching that is going on behind door number two. Finally, they leave, only to be replaced by high heels hurrying to the last stall. When the inevitable gush forth is released on that end, then it will be safe to let go. Wait.

       Waiting; peek under the stall to see what's going on. What nice boots--high heeled and black and sharp-toed, like the ones preening in store windows now. How long does it take to get a pair of boots like that? How many days of work? How many weeks? How many mornings nestled in bed all warm and safe like soup, dreading the ride on a packed train, wedged like old panties against the door?

       The boots begin tapping. A rustle, then beeps. Some people have games on their phone. It passes time, kills it if there's Tetris, until the bathroom is all theirs. Some people have pay-as-you-go-phones, which are special featureless. So that time sits solid, like a brick, like a cramped stomach that wants its bathroom at home.

       But back at the desk, all that passes. Everything passes: have to shit passes, hunger passes, fatigue passes. I love your mouth passes, you're my day and night passes, let's stay friends passes, if you need me I'm here passes, I can't stand to see you like this passes, oh God pleasepleaseplease passes. Everything and anything except 11:30. Because at 11:30, it's two and a half hours until lunch, so late because upon returning, it will be only two more hours until yay! time to go. Then another rushed hour on the train, this time stuffed between people who don't seem to know coats can be dry-cleaned. It does not seem 11:30 will ever come.

       It is now that the screaming begins--concentric shrieks swallowed back behind gritted teeth, whirling in a pool of bad coffee and donut jam. Donuts give you office butt like Joann, the department head, who sits by the door and looks up at the clock when people slip in 15, 20 minutes late, because warm and safe in bed is the only thing left to love and to have to leave it again, not again! 11:30 is a snake downhill, slow like everygoddamnday but now its five years later and only five minutes 'til noon. It claws and snarls like a beast gone rabid, like a person smiling with just their lips who says, "Well, can't complain. And how are you?"

       It only escapes when it's safe, the scream. "No! I just wanna go home!" A jerk into consciousness, however, reveals home all around: the dark, sleeping room with no subways and no eyes. Sitting up in bed, ears keened like prey in the night. What if someone has heard? But all that hand over mouth and pounding heart are quite wasted. As always, no one is listening.

Naturi Thomas wrote After Break under her desk, hiding from her boss. Her work can also be seen in Involutions (www.involutions.org) and the Subway Chronicles (www.thesubwaychronicles.com). She lives in New York City.

2007 Underground Voices